The Government is under pressure to provide retiring policy-holders with a better deal, not least to encourage the next generation to make a start with a penion plan as soon as possible, but Gordon Brown is notoriously tight with taxpayers' money, and any help is likely to come from the private sector. This month Norwich Union has launched a with-profits annuity which varies the pension according to the future performance of the stock market, and Merchant Investors is launching a unit-linked annuity which links annual payments to the underlying performance of the units in which the fund is invested.
The Norwich Union is not the first company to offer a with-profits annuity: Scottish Widows, for example, was there before them. The annual pension payment or annuity is based on the income from a mix of shares, fixed interest stocks, property and cash deposits, and benefits from the same kind of annual bonuses which are credited to standard endowment and with- profits policies.
It also allows the Norwich to offer two unique features; a guaranteed minimum annuity which provides a known floor, below which the annual payment will not fall even when the stock market is going through a bad patch. A surviving spouse can also elect to switch to a conventional annuity in order to provide a completely guaranteed annual income when the the first one has died. Merchant Investors is a more speculative deal which fluctuates with the value of units in the fund.
In both cases, the income over the long term should be greater than the yield on medium-to-long-dated government stocks, which is what determines conventional annuity rates. But it will inevitably start lower because of the low current yield on shares, and it will inevitably fluctuate with the performance of the share markets in future. They do also involve an annual management charge.
They are therefore more suitable for younger pensioners - especially those below the state retirement age who have already retired. In most cases they are by definition quite comfortably off and can afford to wait for long-term out-performance, and they probably still have some supplementary earning power.
New thinking from the private sector on annuities is both welcome and timely. Under current rules, the Government allows the policy-holder to take a quarter of the accumulated fund tax-free to do what he or she wants with, but the rest has to be used to buy an annual income for life.
If pensioners looked at an annuity as an insurance policy which guarantees them an income for life, it might stand a sporting chance of acceptance - if not exactly popularity. But the majority of pensioners see it as a one-way bet in which they first lose 75 per cent of their capital and, sooner or later, the income too.
They ignore the fact that money already invested in a pension fund has been growing steadily, and concentrate on the fact that the percentage pay-out on funds converted into a fixed-rate annuity has virtually halved over the past decade - to just under 9 per cent for a man of 65, and approximately 7 per cent for a woman of 60. Once bought, there is no return of capital and no increase in the annual payment.
Indexed linked annuities grow usually either in line with the retail price index or by 5 per cent, whichever is the less, but they start at around 60-65 per cent of a fixed annuity and take 13 years to catch up. In a perfect world, pensioners would like to get their hands on the capital in their fund to use as they see fit, but no government is going to risk pensioners spending the lot and then relying on the state support.
The best pensioners who want to keep their capital and still draw an income in retirement can do is opt for an income draw-down plan, which allows them to invest the capital from a pension plan and draw an income.
But the income cannot be greater than an annuity would pay, and at 75 it is compulsory to buy an annuity anyway. Income draw-down plans are also expensive to set up and nor are they considered cost-effective for sums under pounds 100,000.
What the public really needs is a CAT-marked draw-down option which requires the pension fund to be invested in a cheaply-managed, not too risky fund, from which the pensioner can draw the income while retaining the capital.